Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Triskaidekaphilia: 'Gen 13' (2000)

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13. 

In a way, Gen 13 was ahead of its time: These days, DC churns out several PG-13-rated direct-to-video animated movies a year, based on specific comic book storylines and geared more toward hardcore fans than general audiences. In 2000, it was more of a risk to adapt the Wildstorm/Image superhero team Gen 13 (created by Jim Lee and Brandon Choi) into an animated movie aimed at adults, complete with surprisingly intense violence, swearing and sexual situations. And sadly, the risk did not pay off: The movie was never officially released in the U.S., since Wildstorm was sold to DC Comics before the scheduled release, and Touchstone Pictures parent company Disney apparently wasn't interested in releasing a movie based on a property owned by a rival studio (DC parent company Warner Bros.), even before Disney owned Marvel Comics. The movie ended up with a limited home video release in some foreign countries, and it's pretty easily found online.

Not that it's really worth looking for, unless you're a hardcore fan of the Gen 13 comics. It's a creative failure as well as a logistical one, a poor adaptation of what was a fun (if inconsequential) superhero series that took a lot of cues from Marvel's X-Men spinoff New Mutants. The mature elements feel out of place, the plotting is on the level of a really long pilot for a Saturday morning cartoon, the animation is subpar and ugly, and the voice acting (even from animation pros like Mark Hamill and E.G. Daily) is stilted and awkward. Artist J. Scott Campbell gave the comic book a distinctive look, but none of his style comes across in the movie, which looks like a generic late-'90s action cartoon.

The plot is an extremely slow-paced origin story, focused on just three of the original five team members, with one other making a couple of brief appearances and one left out entirely. It's mainly about Caitlin Fairchild (voiced by Alicia Witt), who's recruited into the top-secret Project Genesis program that is secretly experimenting on the children of former super-soldiers. Caitlin and her fellow students Roxy (Daily) and Grunge (Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, in a truly terrible performance) undergo training and gradually discover the secrets of the facility, led by the evil Ivana Baiul (Lauren Lane) and the smarmy supervillain Threshold (Hamill). It isn't until the movie's climax that the characters actually get their superpowers, and before that they deal with a bunch of clumsy humor and ineffective suspense.

The action sequences from director Kevin Altieri (an animation veteran with numerous episodes of Batman: The Animated Series to his name) are generic and sometimes confusing, especially the long, drawn-out finale. The excessive violence (with multiple bloody character deaths) feels gratuitous, as do a few early semi-explicit sexual references, and they don't add anything to the storytelling. If anything, they make it feel less mature, like a teenager trying to sound grown-up. The movie never got an MPAA rating since it was never released in the U.S., but it probably would have been a hard PG-13, skirting up against an R. That's a poor fit for a movie that otherwise would be best suited for an unsophisticated tween audience. Years later, DC figured out a better balance for this kind of movie, and has done strong business with its PG-13 home-video features (although the ones I've seen have been mediocre at best). Gen 13 was probably better off being left on the shelf.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Summer School: 'Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome' (1985)

With so many summer franchises returning this year, I'm catching up on previous installments.

Given its reputation as the worst in the series (and my less-than-enthusiastic response to the first two movies), I went into Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome with pretty low expectations. I was actually pleasantly surprised at first: You can tell that series creator George Miller (co-directing this time with George Ogilvie) has taken advantage of the popularity of The Road Warrior to produce a movie on a much larger scale, with much greater resources. If Mad Max looked like a threadbare exploitation movie and The Road Warrior looked like a resourceful, action-driven B-movie, Beyond Thunderdome looks like a mainstream Hollywood production, complete with name stars (Mel Gibson, quite famous by this point, plus singer Tina Turner), elaborate sets, multiple locations and a large cast.

Miller and Ogilvie use those resources well in the beginning, following Max as he stumbles upon Bartertown, a pocket of semi-civilization in the vast wasteland of the Outback (the apocalypse seems to get retroactively worse in each installment of the series). There he meets up with Turner's Aunty Entity and agrees to fight a hulking brute in the arena known as Thunderdome, for the chance to recover the vehicle and belongings that were stolen from him at the beginning of the film. The Thunderdome battle is a creative and exciting action sequence, but it ends with a moment of goopy sentiment, which then sets the tone for the rest of the movie.

Exiled from Bartertown, Max is picked up by a group of children living in an oasis in the middle of the desert, and Beyond Thunderdome turns into an entirely different movie. The annoying kids (seemingly modeled after Peter Pan's Lost Boys) speak in a cutesy patois and decide that Max is their savior, and while his character arc is the same as in The Road Warrior (being captured, then reluctantly agreeing to help a group of survivors), it's played with much more sentimentality. Eventually they all head back to Bartertown, and the movie culminates in another well-crafted car chase, but even that sequence is tainted by dumb kiddie stuff, with the action taking on a more slapstick tone (including some of the kids smacking bad guys with frying pans). There's less emotional resonance in Max's relationship with this whole group of kids than there was in his relationship with the one feral boy in The Road Warrior. The movie ends essentially the same way as the previous one, with Max continuing to drift while the people he helped find peace, but there's no impact to it this time. No wonder Miller had to wait 30 years to get another chance to bring Max to the big screen.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Summer School: 'The Road Warrior' (1981)

With so many summer franchises returning this year, I'm catching up on previous installments.

After the disappointment of watching Mad Max, I didn't have high hopes for The Road Warrior, but I was much more impressed with director George Miller's sequel. I wouldn't say that I was blown away, but I could definitely see how this movie has become a beloved classic, and its influence on so many other post-apocalyptic movies is obvious. With a larger budget, Miller was able to stage even more impressive stunts, and he also does a better job of sketching the post-apocalyptic world, providing the context that the first movie was missing. The plot is still pretty thin, and the characterization is minimal, but at least this time the action and the atmosphere make up for it.

Suddenly Max's world is way more post-apocalyptic than it was in the first movie, even though an opening recap of sorts tries to make it seem like this is a natural progression. Narration explains that wars and a scarcity of oil have turned the world into a wasteland, and the police force and tranquil home environments that supported Max in the first movie seem to have disappeared. (There's no mention of Max's wife, who was still alive in the hospital at the end of the previous movie.) Max wanders the Outback in his badass car, evading the marauding gangs that are so familiar from the pop-culture representations of the series. He comes across a colony of survivors who are trying to move their tanker of precious gasoline to the coast, for reasons that are not entirely clear, and he reluctantly agrees to help them escape the gang's attacks.

That's it for the plot, which leaves a lot of motivations and logistics vague. It's clearly secondary to the action, which Miller once again stages with energy and style, helped by all the crazy vehicles he gets to use and all the colorful characters (the mohawk and assless chaps seem like impractical attire for the villain, but they do look cool). It's pretty amazing what Miller can do without the aid of CGI, and the stunt work here deserves all the acclaim it gets. But even so, I got kind of bored after a while, since I didn't really care whether Max succeeded in his plan to get the survivors to safety (partly because he didn't seem to care much either). The mute, feral boy (whose adult self is revealed as the narrator) is kind of endearing, but none of the characters really held my interest. Mel Gibson's stoic performance carries more weight than his performance in the first movie, but Max by design is a sort of inscrutable figure. I suppose for fans this movie is a triumph of style over substance, but while I admire the style, it only carried the movie so far for me.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Summer School: 'Mad Max' (1979)

With so many summer franchises returning this year, I'm catching up on previous installments.

Of all the blockbuster series coming back this summer, Mad Max is the only one that I wasn't previously familiar with. I never saw the original Mad Max movies as a kid, and I don't remember having any friends who were into them, either. Maybe I am a little too young to have been part of the original target audience, but the movies were all on video when I was growing up, and for whatever reason they just never reached me. So my only sense of Mad Max going into this movie was from various parodies, references and homages, which are apparently all based on the style and plot elements of the second (and most beloved) movie in the series. Imagine my surprise when I put on this movie expecting to get a gritty post-apocalyptic action movie full of grotesque villains in leather outfits and instead got a mildly futuristic revenge/exploitation movie with a couple of decent car chases.

None of the hallmarks of the series' post-apocalyptic world are explained or even apparently present in this movie; the world doesn't look post-apocalyptic at all, really, just a bit dingy and under-populated. "Mad" Max Rockatansky (an impossibly young-looking Mel Gibson) is a cop who specializes in intercepting criminals on the run, and the movie opens with its best scene, a dynamic and exciting car chase as Max and his fellow officers pursue a gangster who killed one of their colleagues. Director George Miller stages some seriously impressive stunts on what was obviously a very small budget, and the opening promises a fast-paced action movie to come.

Unfortunately, that's not what we get. What follows is some familiar B-movie sleaze with the biker gang terrorizing a small town and attacking a young couple, then killing Max's partner after he roughs up one of their members. In between there are dull scenes of Max at home with his wife/girlfriend (never exactly clear) in a nice suburban house that doesn't look post- or even pre-apocalyptic. Once Max's partner gets killed, Max decides to quit the force, and what follows is a dull stretch of Max on vacation with his family, which now includes a baby boy (who either showed up out of nowhere or appeared so briefly in earlier scenes that I completely missed him).

Eventually the action picks up again when the gang comes after Max's family, and there's another fairly exciting action sequence to end the movie. But the whole revenge storyline doesn't get going until the movie's almost over, and the plot up until then is pretty slow and meandering. Miller is often praised for his world-building, but the world of Mad Max is pretty thin, made up of a handful of cool-looking cars and some leather police uniforms. Had I not known that this was the start of an immensely popular film series, I'd dismiss it as a mildly entertaining '70s Ozploitation movie, and not a particularly distinguished one.